Running from Uncle Sam - US hunts thousands of suspected Jamaican lottery scammers to face justice
Thousands of Jamaicans are under investigation as United States law-enforcement officials collaborate with local police to break the back of the lottery scam and other telemarketing crimes.
Under Project JOLT (Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing), an international task force comprised of agents and officers focused on combating Jamaica-based telemarketing fraud operations, 26 Jamaicans have been already indicted in the US District Court of North Dakota on 60 counts of money-laundering conspiracy.
In April, US authorities put in a request for 14 extraditions, following which eight people were arrested in a massive operation in Montego Bay and are currently awaiting the finalisation of their court proceedings.
Six are, however, still on the run, including the alleged leader of the organisation, Lavrick Willocks.
According to a senior US Embassy official, who did not wish to be named, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as hundreds of other Jamaicans are being investigated.
"There are hundreds of active investigations, or even thousands. There are dozens of cases where hundreds of individuals are very close to prosecution with the JOLT task force, and thousand more individuals are currently under investigation for their criminal activities," the official said.
"There have been hundreds of prosecutions, and for every one prosecution or arrest there are two or three other persons that are close to being arrested or close to being charged, and five or six other people who are persons of interest. So we are looking at thousands of people."
In 2012, C. Steven Baker, a Chicago-based director with the US Federal Trade Commission, told the Associated Press that Jamaica's scammers could be bilking Americans out of $1 billion a year.
The scammers are believed to have various methods of selecting their prospective victims.
Some are said to purchase legitimate telemarketing list and sort through based on people's ages, and make hundreds of phone calls daily seeking out the most vulnerable.
The latest Federal Bureau of Investigation arrest notice identifies 27-year-old Willocks' five cronies as being Mario Hines, 23; Akil Gray, 26; Gregory Gooden, 34; Tristan Fisher, 29; and Gareth Billings, 37.
They are accused of bilking approximately 80 elderly Americans out of more than US$5.5 million, in what is described as "an international lottery fraud scheme" that ran for just over six years.
The US official said Willocks is considered to be the mastermind as well as the most dangerous of the men at large.
"What we are worried about is that the Willocks' organisation and Willocks himself, along with the five alleged criminals, are at large here in Jamaica and could potentially bring a lot of violence to whichever community they are hiding out in," said the embassy official.
"If you look at what's going on in Montego Bay, scammers know that the Willocks organisation is on the run and they see it as vulnerable. A lot of the violence is scammer-on-scammer violence, and now that they see this organisation as potentially weak because it is under criminal indictment, who knows what might happen."
As part of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which is one pillar of America's security strategy focused on citizen safety throughout the hemisphere, the US has spent tens of millions of dollars with the main focus being on combating the lotto scamming and other transnational crimes.
"By the time people have become armed and dangerous and are this deep into lotto scamming, the only solution is for them to face justice," the embassy official said.
"We have seen the criminal-minded at all levels of society and in all different institutions; all ages participate in the scam."
The US Embassy official, who described the level of cooperation received from local law enforcement as unprecedented, believes it is very unfortunate that the country has a crime named after it.
"Because there are scammers operating in other CARICOM nations, but what do people call it? They call it the Jamaican lottery scam. It is never good to have a national brand connected to a crime," the US Embassy official emphasised.